Growing New Farmers

Date posted: August 26, 2010

Extension’s Carl Pless helped farmers build this high-tunnel for growing spring tomatoes.Photo by Becky KirklandExtension’s Carl Pless helped farmers build this high-tunnel for growing spring tomatoes.

College programs help novices get started in production agriculture.

Though North Carolina is among the nation’s largest agricultural states, it is rapidly losing farms and farmers. According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, between 1999 and 2006, the state lost 10,000 farms and close to 500,000 acres of farmland. The losses are even greater among African-American farmers. In response to such statistics, N.C. Cooperative Extension initiatives and College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ education programs are helping to ease new and young farmers into agriculture.

At Cabarrus County’s Elma C. Lomax Incubator Farm, 16 new farmers are learning as they grow crops on half-acre plots they rent for $100 a season. The farm, along with an eight-week course for new farmers, is one of the factors driving growth in local farms, says Debbie Bost, Extension director in Cabarrus County.

In Franklin County, part-time farmer Maggie Lawrence recently received a $2,500 grant from the Franklin County Agriculture Board to help her with equipment and farmers’ market needs. Lawrence is selling her produce for the first time this year at the Wake Forest Farmers’ Market. (See sidebar.)

And this spring, state Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler urged College of Agriculture and Life Sciences students to join the state’s farming community, to help bring down the average age of North Carolina’s farmers — currently 58.
When Troxler addressed students in March during one of three lectures and panel discussions he brought to campus in the spring semester, he urged students to consider going into production agriculture. Troxler told students that 83 percent of the state’s farmers are older than 45.  “This is an appropriate topic because we don’t have enough young people coming into farming,” he said. “We need the best creative minds in agriculture in order to move forward.”

Troxler told of his own struggles as a young farmer. He first came to N.C. State University as an engineering student, using the income from 25 acres of tobacco to pay his way through school. He later decided that he wanted to farm full-time. Over the years, his farm grew to 135 acres of tobacco, 40 acres of soybeans and a fruit and vegetable operation.

Photo by Becky Kirkland

Colleen McDaniel cuts spinach in her Lomax Farm plot.

One of the challenges that young farmers face is finding affordable land to start their operations. Incubator farms like the Lomax farm and the Breeze farm in Orange County offer new farmers the chance to learn on a small scale before taking the leap into buying or leasing land for a larger operation.

In 2000, Elma C. Lomax died and left her farmland to Cabarrus County, with the condition that some of the land be used for passive recreation, such as hiking trails or farming. Seven years later, 200 citizens and county commissioners gathered to develop a plan to sustain the county’s agricultural industry. The incubator farm was one of the group’s recommendations.

The farm first began offering land last summer, and nine farmers leased plots. Before obtaining a land lease, the aspiring farmers take an eight-week course offered by Cooperative Extension. The training program deals with topics ranging from marketing to soil fertility to food safety and control of insects and plant diseases, according to Carl Pless, Extension agriculture agent in Cabarrus.

Unlike many traditional farmers who grew up on a family farm, most of the Lomax farmers are new to farming, though some have experience with home gardening or working in the landscape industry. A few have limited family ties to a farm, Pless said.

Pless spends a great deal of time on the farm, patiently answering questions. He even helped the farmers build a sturdy high-tunnel for growing early spring tomatoes. “I try not to be impatient at all because for some of them, it takes more than one time to hear something,” he said.

These new farmers face many challenges, especially learning to grow for local farmers’ markets. They have to determine when to plant, how much to plant, how much will sell in a week and how much reasonably can be harvested. Determining what to grow and what will sell at a market is also a challenge. Pless encourages the farmers to ask market goers what they want.

Several farmers who produced for community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs had to learn to plan their production so they had something for shareholders’ boxes every week. CSA is a marketing strategy where shareholders pay a farmer in advance to receive regular deliveries of fresh farm products.

Weed management is another challenge. As a certified organic operation, Lomax restricts the use of chemical herbicides or pesticides to those approved for organic use. So Pless encourages growers to get ahead of the problem after rain and before weeds take over their fields.

The farmers at Lomax are involved in a variety of enterprises.

Shannon Anderson tried heirloom vegetables last year, but this season, she’s experimenting with a “pick-your-own” flower operation. She will invite people to cut zinnias, sunflowers and other varieties in her plots on the Lomax farm. It will save her the time required to cut and sell flowers at a market.

Aaron Newton, author, teacher and landscape designer, joined the incubator farm after losing his job 18 months ago. He is among several incubator farmers who recently experienced job loss. A native of Concord, Newton grows for 15 families in a CSA. His spring crops included kohlrabi, Swiss chard, collards, spinach, arugula and potatoes. He’s thinking about starting a “storage crops” CSA for winter that would offer vegetables that store well, along with some preserved crops from summer.

Newton, co-author of the book A Nation of Farmers, was recently named the Cabarrus County local food system project coordinator. In this new position, he will coordinate efforts of the Cabarrus County Food Policy Council and provide educational programs.

On a recent afternoon, farmer Colleen McDaniel and a hired helper were cutting the remaining spinach from her field, hoping to steam and freeze it. A bamboo teepee structure will hold gourds this summer for her customers at the nearby Davidson/Harrisonburg market. McDaniel also provides a CSA to nine shareholders.

McDaniel has leased a 200-year old Cabarrus farm that comes with its own tractor but no water for irrigation. So she’s thinking about growing crops fall through spring, when there is less need for supplemental water.
McDaniel, who also owns a landscape business, is achieving the ultimate goal of the incubator farm — transitioning to her own land.

– Natalie Hampton

Sidebar:
A grant seeds Maggie Lawrence’s goal to bring farming back to her family

Photo by Becky Kirkland

At Franklin County’s local foods festival in May, Maggie Lawrence serves up a salad made with greens and spring vegetables from her farm.

New farmer Maggie Lawrence was surprised one Tuesday morning in May when two members of the Franklin County Agriculture Board came to her farm to present her with a $2,500 grant to help with some basic needs on her new farm. Lawrence was recipient of the county’s first “Innovative Ideas” grant for small, beginning or part-time farmers. Lawrence qualifies in all categories.

The grant funds came mainly from a partnership between N.C. Cooperative Extension and Whole Foods of Raleigh. In February, Whole Foods agreed to place collection boxes at all its checkout lines, asking customers to help support small farmers in neighboring Franklin County. Agriculture Agent Martha Mobley of Franklin County and several local farmers came to the store in February to share information about Franklin County farms and the grants project.

Four farmers applied for the grant, and the county’s agriculture board visited them all. Lawrence said she wrote her proposal quickly and wasn’t confident that she would receive anything. So the $2,500 check came as a welcome surprise.

Like many of North Carolina’s newest farmers, Lawrence did not grow up on a farm, though past generations of her family farmed. She wants to be the one to bring farming back into her family. An avid gardener in the past, Lawrence said she always grew more food than she could eat and shared quite a bit with friends.

When Lawrence knew it was time to begin developing her garden in to a farm, she contemplated moving to an area like Chatham County, where small farming is prevalent and well received, but decided that she was not finished with Franklin County. Lawrence lives in Louisburg and works in land conservation while farming in her spare time.
“Franklin County has much potential to become a sustainable farming community,” Lawrence said.

Lawrence grows on approximately one acre and has access to a greenhouse. She decided to start small, though she would like to eventually have more land and develop relationships with chefs who would value her produce.

Her marketing strategy is to offer a variety of produce to consumers. In the spring, she sold mixed salad greens, carrots, sugar snaps, kale, chard, spinach, beets and radishes. In May, she prepared a salad from her spring garden for Franklin County’s Dinner on the Green, a local-foods meal that takes place during the county’s farm and crafts tour weekend. And this summer, Lawrence is offering onions, potatoes, okra, corn, sweet potatoes, cut flowers, green beans, eggplant, cucumbers, and several types of summer squash, peppers and tomatoes. She also has started shiitake mushroom production and hopes to offer those next year.

One of her challenges is helping her customers understand how to prepare and enjoy the produce she sells. To that end, she recently started a blog — maggiesproduce.blogspot.com — where she shares cooking tips, news, happenings on the farm and more.

She shares the challenges of all farmers: Weather fluctuations, insect pests and consumer demands. Like all new farmers, she wonders about how to balance farming and a salary job, how farmers afford health insurance or prepare for retirement and how to drive a tractor.

Lawrence has a generous neighbor who has shared his tractor, but since she’s still learning, she does much of her work by hand. She hopes the grant will help her obtain basic farming tools and equipment to help her at the market. A new pitchfork will be Lawrence’s first purchase, after breaking her old one after mulching the potatoes. She currently transports products to market in her car, and she can already see the day when she’ll need bigger transportation. For now a car rack will help suit up her car just fine.

She thinks that $2,500 is a pretty good start.

—Natalie Hampton

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